A Paris firefighter is pictured in a file photo speaking with a homeless woman during rounds in sub-freezing winter weather temperatures. On. Feb. 1, 1954 a Catholic priest was shocked to learn a woman froze to death on the streets of Paris with an eviction notice in her hand. OSV News photo/Charles Platiau, Reuters

Emmaus a path to housing the homeless

  • February 22, 2024

In 1949, Abbé Pierre, a young French priest, welcomed Georges Legay, a homeless man who had tried to commit suicide, into his rundown home in Paris. Instead of giving Legay housing, work and money, Abbé Pierre said, “You are totally miserable, and I have nothing to give you. So why not help me help others?”

Within months, the priest had taken in several others. Together, they began to build homes for other homeless people. The group scavenged through garbage, finding items to sell so the project, called Emmaus, could provide housing. In 1952, Abbé Pierre won 256,000 francs on a radio game show and used the money to buy land and a van.

In February 1954, the priest learned of a woman who had been evicted from her apartment the previous day and died of exposure, still clutching her eviction notice. He made a national appeal on radio. “Each night, more than 2,000 endure the cold, without food, without bread, more than one almost naked. To face this horror, emergency lodgings are not enough,” he declared. “We need, tonight, and at the latest tomorrow, 5,000 blankets, 300 big American tents, and 200 catalytic stoves.”

The response was overwhelming. Phone lines were jammed as people scurried to help. Donations of more than 500 million francs were received. The French government contributed 10 billion francs which built 10,000 emergency homes. It also enacted a law banning evictions during the winter.

The Emmaus movement spread around the world, reaching more than 50 countries by the time he died in 2007.

How loathsome is Canada’s response to the homeless in comparison with that of Abbé Pierre’s France. The low-income housing crisis is spiraling out of control with urban encampments growing rapidly over the past five years. Instead of our leaders providing assistance, municipal police forces have swooped down on urban encampments, expropriating the residents’ belongings and often leaving them with nowhere to go.

Canada’s national housing advocate Marie-Josée Houle issued a report on encampments on Feb. 13 decrying “widespread incidents of municipal officials tearing down tents and seizing individual property, including personal identification, photo albums, money and clothing.”

The evictions are “inherently violent” and destabilizing, removing people from their support systems and taking the tools they need to survive. Houle’s report stated violent incidents have occurred in some encampments and added that many residents are more fearful of the lack of safety which comes from sleeping in overnight shelters or being alone on the street. She also noted that when violence occurs in apartment buildings, it does not lead to the eviction of all the building’s tenants.

Encampments are not a policing issue, Houle’s report said. They are an effort by people to claim their right to housing.

Houle maintained that one step necessary to overcoming the crisis is to consult residents of the encampments. That step is also being recommended by the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness (ECOHH) which is challenging aggressive action in clearing the camps, which some say is the harshest in Canada.

ECOHH has distributed a leaflet challenging the myths about the encampments, prefering to call them informal settlements, which have been spread to justify their dismantling. (See ecohh.ca.) 

In an article in the Feb. 7 Edmonton Journal, ECOHH spokesperson Jim Gurnett argued, “The ruthless, intense campaign to destroy every camp is taking a large toll on the mental well-being of people who are already some of the most powerless and traumatized members of the community.”

What can we do? We might start by learning from Finland which in 2007 launched its Housing First program. The program is based on the idea that having a permanent home can help solve the social and mental health issues of the unhoused. Once given a home, the previously homeless receive individually tailored support.

Also crucial is increasing the supply of affordable housing. Homeless shelters in Finland have all been turned into supportive housing. In Canada, governments have failed to provide significant new low-income housing for more than 30 years. In Finland, homelessness has been all but eliminated.

Police crackdowns are not even a short-term solution to homelessness. Canada needs the political will to uphold the human right to housing. For that we need leadership. We just need those, like Abbé Pierre, who see marginalized people not as a burden but as our common responsibility.

(Glen Argan writes his online column Epiphany at https://glenargan.substack.com.)

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